November 7, 2011

Book Review: The Animals Beyond Us by Michael Hettich

Over the years, I had grown accustomed to a book of poems by Michael Hettich: meticulously honed verse culled from various journals that revealed his preoccupations over a period of time. But Michael’s new collection, The Animals Beyond Us, is a surprising departure from what I'd come to expect.

For starters, his process is different. About two years ago and ten years after his father’s death, Michael set himself the task of writing a hundred and fifty poems in one creative effort, but without the safety of editing as he composed—a kind of poetic “pedal to the metal.” Michael also had some self-imposed rules, which he revealed at his launch at Books & Books: "No stanza breaks something close to a four-beat line; leaping from one “idea” or location to another/juxtaposition, and no explaining."

The result is a remarkable book of poems, which explores the inherent vibrancy of everyday objects that we take for granted against a backdrop of silence. The poems convince us that the world is alive, but we have been numbed by routine. "Crack open the nut of things and taste the living meat," Michael urges us in "Loving a Good Woman."

Easier said than done, we may say when we argue for our fears instead of the wonder beyond our fingertips. There is also a fearlessness that sometimes borders on wistful naiveté with which Michael confronts the environment. "The Bullfrogs," is emblematic of the existential risks that punctuate the collection:

When we first moved to Miami from Vermont
we were so happy to have left the cold
that every time we went into the Everglades, every time
we pulled off the road there, we had to take off
our clothes for a swim in the black water, rejoicing
at the sweet warmth. We delighted in what we called
the bullfrogs as we swam out, their resonant croaks.
We reveled at the sweet smells and the balmy breezes
as we floated on our backs to watch the buzzards circle.
We marveled at the fact that so few people
came out here to swim: The water smelled like flowers.
For that whole first year we had no idea
those croaks we found so charming were actually
challenges from bull alligators establishing their territory,
calling anything in the immediate vicinity
to make love or fight, and they were hungry too.
We just swam out, naked and happy.
Then we got dressed and drove home through the dusk
along a two-lane highway littered with the bodies
of car-struck wild animals: vultures and opossums,
turtles, snakes, raccoons. We hardly talked
As we drove, relaxed and clean
from our swimming. Sometimes you looked out the window
as the dark fell. More often you fell asleep beside me.

It's exciting to discover that Michael has found a novel way to reveal the music that hums through his body and the world around him:

Insects have heartbeats, of course, even worms.
The rhythm those hearts make, all beating all the time.
Even single moments have heartbeats, and they breathe—

The Animals Beyond Us is narrated at times with the guilt of a survivor, who despite personal and environmental tragedies has crafted exquisite meditations on love, loss, and memory brought together in acts of redemption we call poems.

Geoffrey Philp
Miami, Florida

About Michael Hettich

Michael Hettich’s most recent book of poetry, The Animals Beyond Us, was published in October 2011 by New Rivers Press. Other books include Like Happiness (2010), Flock And Shadow: New and Selected Poems (2005) and Swimmer Dreams (2004). The Measured Breathing, his forthcoming chapbook, won the 2011 Swan Scythe Press Chapbook Contest. His work has appeared in such journals as Orion, Prairie Schooner, Witness, The Bloomsbury Review, Poetry East, and Alaska Quarterly Review. He teaches at Miami Dade College.

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